Palmira And Ermance (Part 1)

Though the Duke had promised to try to sleep, and really found himself so inclined from loss of blood, he could not help revolving in his mind the various occurences of the last twelve hours; and the reiterated proofs of attachment de Melac had given him… He had been excessively struck with many of de Melac’s unguarded expressions during his state of phrenzy; and had particularly remarked what he said to Bazile, which seemed to come from his very soul, and to be occasioned by the impulse of the moment: yet, could he suppose he preferred him to his own son? it would be very strange if he did… Ermance also had been struck with the strong resemblance between them; yet he saw no possibility of their being in any way related. Still de Melac talked very ambiguously, and seemed acquainted with many of his friends; and it now struck him, though the idea had never entered his head before, that the bare mention of his relationship to the Marechal de St. Firmin had occasioned the first strange illness de Melac had been seized with…

After a profitable career in Guadeloupe, M. de Melac returns to France with his three grown children, Bazile, Ernestine and Clemence. Although his initial plan is retirement and a life of leisure, when as a result of his financial acumen and probity he is offered of his choice of posts, he accepts that of Receiver-General of Dunkirk, which gives him occupation without being overly demanding. The decision infuriates Bazile, a callow young man obsessed with dress whose only ambition is to cut a figure in the polite world; and indeed, one of M. de Melac’s reasons for moving his family to Dunkirk is to separate Bazile from the dangerous companions and temptations of Paris.

The attention of Dunkirk becomes absorbed by the arrival of the cavalry regiment commanded by the handsome young Duke de Civrac, whose glowing public reputation precedes him. Immediately, thinking how well a uniform would become him, Bazile is consumed by a desire to join the cavalry. One evening, M. de Melac takes his family to a fete in a nearby village. To their surprise, they find that several of the cavalry officers are in attendance; and that far from considering himself above the country gathering, the Duke de Civrac participates in its various amusements, and accepts the village Bailli’s eagerly offered hospitality. During the festivities, M. de Melac is introduced to the Duke – and for a moment can only stare at him in some confusion, struck by his appearance but unable to say why. It is two of the onlookers, one of the other officers and de Melac’s friend, the surgeon M. Vanval, who comment upon the resemblance between the two men. M. de Melac is embarrassed, but the Duke soon succeeds in putting him at his ease. He then requests an introduction to Ernestine and joins the dance with her, before partnering the daughter of the Bailli.

Over the following weeks, the Duke and M. de Melac find themselves drawn to one another, and in spite of the disparity in their ages a friendship grows between them. Yet M. de Melac never presumes upon the acquaintance: if anything, he keeps the Duke at a slight distance, offering him no encouragement to call at his house or to see more of Ernestine and Clemence. At the same time, he shows himself willing to ride out with the Duke or to dine with him whenever asked. The two men find that they have common interests, and often discuss topics such as military tactics, politics and the state of French finances. The Duke discovers that M. de Melac was, in the early part of his life, in the military; but seeing that this is for some reason a painful topic, he changes the subject.

But although M. de Melac strives to avoid presuming in any way upon the young nobleman’s favour, such is not the case with Bazile, who takes it into his head to exploit his father’s friendship by begging the Duke to grant him a place in his regiment. Although taken aback by the boy’s presumption, the Duke’s warm feeling for M. de Melac restrains him from snubbing Bazile; and although he will not help him – particularly after Bazile admits that his father does not want a military career for him – he agrees to discuss that aspect of the matter, at least, with M. de Melac. When the three meet one afternoon, at the prompting of Bazile the Duke recounts his own service history, which began at the age of fourteen in a regiment commanded by his own grandfather, the Marechal de St. Firmin, a great military leader.

The conversation is broken off when M. de Melac is suddenly taken ill and collapses. When he recovers from the spell, he insists that it is nothing serious; but the Duke, in his concern, sends the regimental physician, M. Bertrand, to attend him – an attention that almost overpowers M. de Melac again, as the doctor notes. Unable to make light of his illness to M. Bertrand as he did to the others, M. de Melac attributes it to a long-standing, though usually latent, condition – at which the acute physician diagnosis him as suffering from a secret strain upon his mind and spirits, rather than any bodily ill. He admits to it, and asks for the physician’s assurance that he will say nothing of his case to the Duke. When, some days later, the Duke tells M. de Melac that he will be leaving Dunkirk, the older man’s distress is evident, leaving the Duke both touched and a little confused. He explains that he will only be gone for a short time while he visits Ypres, where a great festival is to be held upon the dedication of a new church. At this, M. de Mercal replies that he, too, has been invited to Ypres by his friend M. Vanval, who was originally from that town and has many relatives there.

M. de Melac accompanies the Duke to Ypres in his chaise. On the way, the Duke confides to his friend that he was a very personal reason for going – that he hopes to see, for the first time, the girl to whom he has been betrothed for many years. When M. de Melac expresses surprise and some uneasiness over this arrangement, the Duke assures him that he is quite content with it; that with lady in question, Mlle Palmira de Moncove, is celebrated equally for her beauty and the sweetness of her temper. He goes on to explain that the girl’s mother, a daughter of the Marquis de Neufpont, and his own have always been the closest of friends – were married on the same day during a joint ceremony – and have long desired the union of their children.

However, the Duke’s story is interrupted when M. de Melac is again taken ill, although this time he recovers more quickly. He insists that there is nothing a doctor can do, and admits that his illness is not physical; commenting that a strange fatality seems to preside over his life. To his surprise, the Duke replies that, of his own experience, he understands what he means. When M. de Melac hesitatingly alludes once more to the betrothal, the Duke remarks that the marriage being his mother’s wish is enough for him, but beyond that he knows that he can depend entirely upon her judgement. He adds that it is to his mother alone that he owes his education, after being deprived of his father by an act of the cruellest villainy.

Hearing of the Duke’s upbringing, M. de Melac laments his own failures with Bazile. The Duke ventures to suggest the army for the boy, since he has declared an interest in such a career, but M. de Melac says bitterly that the boy’s lack of birth would be against him, and that it was because of his own lowness of origin that he was compelled to resign his military post. The Duke is warmly indignant on his friend’s behalf, speaking angrily of such prejudices. The two travel on to Ypres, where M. de Melac is invited to accompany the Duke while he meets the party waiting for him, chiefly the Bishop who is to perform the dedication ceremony – and who is the uncle of Mlle de Moncove. To the Duke’s disappointment, Palmira herself is not present after all. Instead, he finds himself being introduced to her lovely younger sister, Ermance…

[SPOILERS]

You have to hand it to Mary Meeke. Although it’s hard to argue with the assertion that “all her novels are the same”, it’s also hard not to admire her ability to keep putting a different spin on her favourite plot-point, the substituted baby – and furthermore, to keep the reader guessing over how the various, seemingly contradictory, elements in her story can possibly be resolved. If you’ll forgive the stretching of a simile, Meeke’s novels are rather like a game of chess: she uses a traditional open gambit each time, yet each individual contest plays out differently.

In Palmira And Ermance, the improvement we noted between Meeke’s first and second novels continues, here manifesting as a better integration between the central mystery and the other elements of the plot. As in The Abbey Of Clugny, much of the interest of this novel lies in the slow revelation that the central mystery is not actually what we think it is. We certainly know enough to prick up our ears at the early mention of the death of someone close to the central character, whose demise was evidently surrounded by strange circumstances; and before too long we are as certain as we can be that M. de Melac is the young Duke’s long-lost father. The overarching question here, then, is not whether the West Indian merchant is in fact the supposedly dead Duke de St. Piene, but rather, if he is—why doesn’t he say so?

If you think it might have something to do with a substituted baby, give yourself a gold star.

Meeke has fun playing with her readers’ expectations in this novel, delaying explanation and confusing the issue even while scattering throughout her text all sorts of clever touches best appreciated in retrospect—my favourite being that, at quite distinct points in the story and when we are likely to be distracted by other events, it is separately revealed that the young Duke’s first name is Adolphus, and that M. de Melac’s initial is ‘A’. There’s also the detail that the Duke has been awarded a newly created title on the strength of his own merit and military accomplishments (and, as we later infer, as a way of glossing over the family embarrassment), the result of this being that until he casually mentions his grandfather’s name, M. de Melac doesn’t realise who he is talking to. No wonder he collapses.

The revelation of the Terrible Secret is another clever scene, with M. de Melac writhing in silent agony as he is compelled to hear his own secret history from the lips of his own son who, by now harbouring an almost incredible suspicion, watches him like a hawk as tells his story.

We learn of the blissful marriage of the young Duke de St. Piene and his Duchess, one about to be crowned by the birth of their first child when tragedy strikes. The fly in the young couple’s ointment is the family steward, Joinville, who takes advantage of the favour of the Dowager Duchess and grows ever more insolent and presuming—until the Duke finally loses his temper and threatens chastisement and dismissal, only to be threatened in turn:

Joinville, by no means intimidated, merely said, “Do your worst, young fellow! you are in my power; and no more whom you suppose yourself to be, than I am! you are not a Duke—do I speak intelligibly now?” Looking around as he concluded, as if fearful of being overheard, though he had said this almost in a whisper;—Astonished, staggered, and hardly believing he had understood the vile wretch, my father, for some seconds, remained motionless, till Joinville repeated his words, adding, in a still lower tone, “Not to keep you in useless suspence, young man—know you are my son—judge therefore how little right you have to exert the obedience of your father; and if ever you forget yourself as you have done this day, I will disclose this secret, which has lain heavy on my mind for some years, to the whole world, and reduce you by one word to a level with myself!”

And, believe it or not, it gets worse—for it is not, as we first suppose, a case of the Duchess fooling around with a servant:

“…it is no longer my intention to keep you in the dark respecting your real origin, my son.” —My father shuddered at the appellation, and the villain thus proceeded:— “nor of the reasons which induced me to connive at the deception the Duchess Dowager de St. Piene, your supposed mother, chose to put upon her husband’s family: you are my son by an opera dancer, for I was never married… The late Duke de St. Piene died before his son was six months old; strong convulsions…carried off his son a few days afterwards; and to make short of my story, to secure the property to the Duchess Dowager, you were by her desire substituted in his place…”

But in spite of being, as he puts it himself, the son of “a most abandoned villain and a common prostitute”, the ci-devant Duke is “the soul of honour”. His first impulse is to confess everything to his wife, and abide by her judgement; to stay or leave as she bids him—but with the birth of their child imminent, he does not dare give her such an appalling shock. Instead, he confronts his mother—or rather, “mother”—who confirms Joinville’s story. Instantly, the shattered young man resolves to relinquish everything he holds under false pretences, and he steels himself to confess to his wife’s father, the Marquis de St. Firmin. The outcome is even worse than he fears:

…few were greater slaves to etiquette, or more zealously conscious of the honour of their family, than the Marquis: to learn therefore that he had bestowed the heiress of one of the most noble and most ancient houses in France, upon the base-born son of a hireling domestic, and an abandoned woman, did not dispose the haughty Marquis to treat my father’s noble confession, as such generous frankness deserved. Every virtue he had been the first to acknowledge in the Duke de St. Piene, vanished the moment he became acquainted with the lowness of his origin…

The only up-side of the situation is that the Marquis is determined to hush the scandal up, partly for his daughter’s sake, but mostly in the name of honour. Having first secured a promise from his son-in-law that he will not attempt to see his wife, the Marquis has Joinville—who, judging by himself, never dreams that the young man will voluntarily surrender his title, fortune and position—seized and imprisoned, so that he will have no chance to air the family’s dirty laundry any further (no difficult matter, in a society unhampered by that nonsensical convention known as “due process”), before confronting the quaking Duchess and threatening her with dire punishment should she ever breathe a word of the truth.

The Marquis then consults with the uncle of the “Duke”—who should have inherited the title and estate upon the death of his infant nephew—and as a consequence, the young man is told that his wife has died in childbirth, and the baby with her. His world now utterly shattered, he makes no protest against the Marquis’s suggestion that he leave France and begin again in another country, and departs without delay for the West Indies. Meanwhile, waiting only until his daughter is safely delivered of a son, the Marquis tells her that her husband has been killed in a duel – a mock funeral being performed to support this outrageous lie. An invented flaw in the marriage settlements see the title and estates revert to the uncle, who (being unmarried) subsequently settles them upon his great-nephew, thus closing the circle of conspiracy…

And so the stubborn silence of “M. de Melac” is explained, and we are left gasping at Mary Meeke’s audacity. Has she truly written a novel in which the two central characters are the bastard offspring of a servant and a prostitute, and that child’s own blood-tainted son!?

No, of course she hasn’t. What, are you nuts!?

I said at the outset that we have to admire Meeke’s ability to keep ringing the changes in her favourite plot, and nowhere more so than here, in a a novel that turns out to be built around a baby substitution that never actually happened.

What did happen is this: Joinville and his mistress (who he had installed as the young Duke’s nurse) concocted a plan to exploit the venal Duchess and set themselves up for life by exchanging their own baby for their noble charge; but before they could do so, their child died. Not to worry. Switching to Plan B, they simply told the Duchess it was her son who died, and offered her “their” son in exchange, so that she could hold onto her fortune and her position in society—and the Duchess, being a proper 18th century mother, was of course quite incapable of recognising her own baby…

As it turns out, almost from the moment of his arrest Joinville tried to confess to this tremendous secret, but was unable to get anyone to listen to him. It was, consequently, twelve years after the “death” of the Duke de St. Piene before the truth came to light, to the horror and shame of the Marquis de St. Firnim and his co-conspirator. A search was immediately instigated, but no trace of the exile Duke could be found beyond the moment of his arrival in Nantes; and whether he is dead or alive his wife and son have been unable to determine.

Until now

    “I have no will but yours, my dear father,” said Adolphus; “God forbid I should ever again cause a moment’s sorrow to either; but my happiness will not be complete till I see you again restored to my dear mother. But why have you, I may say wantonly, so long retarded that happy event? You must have known that I was your son a very short time after we became acquainted.”
    “But not that I was Duke de St. Piene, my Adolphus; and nothing short of that conviction should ever have made me disclose a secret I was afraid, till within this half hour, would lower you in the eyes of the world. I have, as you observe, long known you was my son; and have never let a day pass since I became thus wise, without pouring out my gratitude to the giver of all goodness for such a blessing…”

[To be continued…]

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3 Responses to “Palmira And Ermance (Part 1)”

  1. Of course, some 18th-century French aristos might simply have arranged for Joinville to have a convenient accident…

    With the cavalry in a small country town, I start to think of Pride and Prejudice. Though I do faintly wonder why one would deploy cavalry on the coast

  2. Mary Meeke’s aristos seem to prefer life in solitary.

    They’re not deployed, merely bivouacked and doing manoeuvres and such – even more like Pride And Prejudice, in fact.

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